Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla

This book of 21 essays is, in the words of the editor's note, "a document of what it means to be a person of colour now."

While "the universal experence is white", we're presented with "21 universal experiences: feelings of anger, displacement, defensiveness, curiousity, absurdity - we look at death, class, microaggression, popular culture, free movement, stake in society, lingual fracas, masculinity and more." It's insightful, funny, surprising and harrowing, and has got me thinking about my own assumptions and behaviour, that of the industry in which I work and society around me.

It's an excellent, wide-ranging book and I recommend it to anyone.

Tediously, I read it on the recommendation that it included something about the 1977 Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. What follows is some thoughts about that, though I'm still mulling it all over. (And you might like to watch my 2011 documentary related to this subject: "Race Against Time", included on the DVD of the 1972 story, The Mutants.)

Daniel York Loh's essay, "Kendo Nagasaki and Me", is about his response as a child to a particular wrestler on ITV's World of Sport, and the rare sight on mainstream TV in the 1970s of a "fellow 'oriental'" - as he puts it on p. 46. It's a heartfelt account, and he admits at the end that he may have muddled some of the historical details, but the point is not about the accuracy of his memory so much as what the relationship meant and still means to him.

Doctor Who - "my favourite TV programme in the world" (p. 52) - gets four and a bit paragraphs, an extended aside. Compared to today's version, the Doctor Who he grew up with "was populated almost entirely by white people ... For a remit with the whole of time and space as a pallette this is a bit crap frankly." He describes The Talons of Weng-Chiang as a,
"handsomely mounted Victorian Sax Rohmer homage", but with "one of the very worst examples of yellowface as a gang of silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together) goons (the only appropriate description) appeared, led by an English actor called John Bennett sporting ridiculous false eyelids that looked like you could sit on them, skin made up yellow than a lump of cheese and speaking in a hopelessly mishmashed Chinese/Japanese hybrid accent that would had had Henry Higgins completely stumped. Not nearly so much as the fact that the BBC still carries a website page somewhere that heaps lavish praise on Mr Bennett's staggeringly silly turn, opining that, unless they knew, the viewer might be hard-pressed to tell that the English thesp wasn't in fact Chinese. Not unless they were under the impression that Chinese people had eyelids made from recycled skateboards and talked like Yoda in Star Wars when he's been on the ketamine, I think." (p. 53)
My immediate response to this is to want to defend the story - which I enjoy and admire in many respects - and Doctor Who more generally, and even the BBC. For one thing, that praise for Bennett, on an old part of the BBC website, is clearly labelled as a quotation from a book. And yet, on checking, it still says:
"John Bennett is faultless as the inscrutable Li H'sen Chang, and his performance and make-up are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that he is not actually Chinese."
Doctor Who - The Talons of Weng-Chiang: in detail
That it is quoted from a book is no excuse. The quotation is from Doctor Who - The Television Companion, first published in 1998 by BBC Books, the cover proclaiming in large letters that it was, "the official BBC guide to every TV story." That is pretty authoritative, and the website repeats the book's assessment of the story in full, without comment. The book was republished as recently as 2013, and though that wasn't by BBC Books and without the authority of being an "official" publication, it still shows that this isn't merely something from the distant past.

I don't mean to criticise the authors of the book or the editors of the website; I might well have written or quoted something similar without thought. That's the point: The Good Immigrant challenges bias and prejudice we might not even be aware of in ourselves, whatever our intentions and however much we want to believe that racism is something other, bad people do. It chimes with my recent reading of The Blunders of Our Governments. How do we address a white blindness we're not even aware of?

Criticism of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is not new, nor the defensive response. It's been argued that Doctor Who was better than other programmes made at the same time - but surely not all of them. And that doesn't negate the issues there anyway.

Or it is said the story itself critiques racist attitudes. Yes, this isn't simply Doctor Who trotting out the stereotypes of Sax Rohmer. For all Bennett's performance owes something to the version of Fu Manchu played by (the also white) Christopher Lee in the five films made in the 1960s, Chang is, ultimately, a rather sympathetic character, his motivation clear - the opposite of the "inscrutable". At the same time, the Doctor counters some of the prejudice shown by the Victorian Londoners in the story. But it's still bound up in racial and class-based assumptions, and the Doctor is visiting London anyway to educate his "savage" companion - an adjective with racist associations.

Or there's the argument that the BBC were required to only use actors who were members of Equity, which limited the number of Chinese or Chinese-descended actors who might have taken this particular role. That didn't mean there weren't any; I find myself imagining the story with Burt Kwuok playing Chang. But the casting of Bennett is also surely part of a - no doubt unconcious - tendency to have Chinese and East Asian characters played by actors of Jewish origin. Think also of Martin Miller as Kublai Khan in the 1964 Doctor Who story Marco Polo, or, more notably, Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No. Then recall the criticism above of villains who are,
"silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together)".
There's also the cumulative effect when actors of particular ethnic backgrounds do not get the same opportunties as their white counterparts. They don't develop their skills, so they're seen as less able than their white counterparts, so they miss out on further work, so they don't develop their skills...

It remains an issue, as described by young actor Paul Courtney Hyu, interviewed by Wei Ming Kam for "Beyond 'Good' Immigrants", another of the essays in the book. Hyu says that with so few opportunities for "East Asians" in film and TV in the UK, another actor, Elain Tan, has gone to America where she is "working her arse off."

But then Hyu addes "in a satisfied tone" an example of a UK show doing better than the rest:
"And she is the main person in our episode of Doctor Who [2015's Sleep No More]. So there are two Chinese in it, and she's got a Geordie accent, and pretty good too, I have to say. And I do my Yorkshire accent." (p.93)
As a Doctor Who fan, I take some pride in that - but also know it's a rare example.

Himesh Patel mentions, on p. 64, watching Doctor Who while a teenager - one of the things he followed closely with his (white) peers so as to fit in, while they showed no interest in Bollywood music or films.

Anyway, all this has got me thinking - informing my perspective on old episodes as I watch them on Twitch and research them for the various magazines I write for, and challenging some assumptions in the script I'm late on at the moment. An aspect of a character has just been revised because this book made me realise an aspect of my own blindess, and pointed the way to do better.

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